In the movie “Moneyball,” about how the low-budget Oakland Athletics revolutionized the way baseball players are evaluated, there’s a scene in which the A’s general manager is discussing a certain lowly regarded journeyman who can’t hit very well but draws an unusual number of walks.
“He gets on base a lot, Rocco. Do I care if it’s a walk or a hit?” asks the general manager played by Brad Pitt.
The analyst played by Jonah Hill responds: “You do not.”
The point was, the player got on base and it didn’t matter how he got there.
The scene comes to mind as we reflect on the current negotiations over the state budget. One of the great problems facing rural Virginia has been “the digital divide” — the lack of broadband internet in vast swaths of the state. That divide was a decided obstacle to economic growth even before this year’s pandemic turned it into a crisis. Students can’t attend school virtually and no one can do virtual medicine appointments or work remotely if they don’t have broadband.
The problem to solving this isn’t a technological, it’s economic: It’s not cost-effective for internet companies to reach many rural areas, which is why some government intervention is necessary to underwrite the cost of laying fiber. To the credit of both political parties, rural broadband has been a bipartisan issue even before the pandemic — and the pandemic has only made rural broadband a more urgent matter.
That’s why we are so perplexed by one point of contention that has arisen in the closing days of the General Assembly’s pandemic-inspired special session.
As Roanoke Times political reporter Amy Friedenberger reported last week, the House of Delegates’ version for the budget includes a proposal for a pilot program that would allow municipal broadband authorities to compete with the private sector for state grants. The state Senate’s version does not contain such a provision, which means the difference will have to be reconciled in a conference committee. That’s expected by Wednesday. Those differences are typical of a bicameral legislature. What more curious is that one of the leading opponents of this pilot program is a legislator who represents rural Virginia — Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County.
Byron’s opposition is philosophical. She has long been a dim view of municipal broadband authorities — such as the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority — as not something local government should be involved in. “This is not a local government function,” she said last week. “Stepping in and asking local governments to — with their authorities — own and operate a broadband network is not the solution we’re looking for.”
Here is where we think Byron is wrong — and actually working against the interest of her rural constituents.
Regular readers of this space know that we don’t have much interest in philosophy. We do, however, have an interest in quoting Shakespeare and, as is often the case, The Bard provides the words we need. Hamlet told his friend Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Same here.
The goal is to get rural Virginia online. Period. Does it matter how we get there? Byron thinks it does. We, much like Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” do not. A walk is as good as a hit as long as it gets a runner on base; municipal broadband is a good as private sector broadband if it gets a previously unserved rural area online. Philosophy here seems a luxury.
This is not a strictly partisan split, because a lot of Republicans in the House — a lot of Republicans who represent rural areas — joined with Democrats in voting for the pilot program. These include Dels. Terry Austin of Botetourt County, John Avoli of Staunton, Jeff Campbell of Smyth County, Jim Edmunds of Halifax County, Chris Head of Botetourt County, Terry Kilgore of Scott County, Joe McNamara of Roanoke County, Chris Runion of Rockingham County, Israel O’Quinn of Washington County, Nick Rush of Montgomery County and Will Wampler of Washington County.
We can understand why some Republicans from metropolitan Virginia — such as Barry Knight and Jason Miyares of Virginia Beach or Dave LaRock from Loudoun County — might vote against this measure. They represent some of the most wired parts of the state. In terms of broadband, they represent the “haves.” This simply isn’t their problem. They can afford to vote on the basis of philosophy. What is more perplexing are the rural Republicans — who represent the “have nots” — who voted against the measure. These include Byron, Les Adams of Pittsylvania County, Charles Poindexter of Franklin County, Ronnie Campbell of Rockbridge County, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, Danny Marshall of Danville, Will Morefield of Tazewell County, Wendell Walker of Lynchburg and Tony Wilt of Rockingham County. They have put philosophy ahead of practicality. Some might argue that constitutes a “Profile in Courage.” Voters will have to figure that out. (If you’re keeping count, one legislator from this part of the state was absent and did not vote — Matthew Farris of Campbell County).
Cable companies are much opposed to this provision as they have historically seen municipal broadband as a competitor. That also is a philosophical argument (and you already know how we feel about philosophy). If you want to liken this to highways, the question is whether you want a private-built highway that serves only one trucking company can operate on or a publicly built highway open to all. Like we said, philosophy.
How much should philosophy matter? Perhaps that, itself, is a philosophical question. We still come back to the practicalities: It can’t be said that municipal broadband is holding back the private sector from extending broadband to rural Virginia because the private sector clearly hasn’t been able to fix the problem on its own — and the economic reasons why are perfectly understandable. If this pilot program gets more people online, does it really matter how they got there? Byron and those opposed to the measure say it does. However, no baseball fan, eager to get a runner on base, is going to object to a walk. When the General Assembly produces a final budget, we’ll see how the state legislature really feels about philosophy — and us. Or, maybe, campaign contributions from the telecoms.
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